Phantom Crash & S.L.A.I.

Year: 2002
Genre: Action
Developer: Genki Co. Ltd
Publisher: Phantagram Interactive
Platform: Xbox

When someone thinks about Japanese mech combat games for consoles, at least those that don’t happen to involve Gundam in some fashion, the name that probably springs first to mind is FromSoftware‘s Armored Core series. That’s not to say there aren’t others, of course, but Armored Core has been a bit of a mainstay from its introduction in 1997 up until 2013’s Verdict Day. Genki, a company formed by two former Sega AM2 staff in 1990, created a pair of seventh generation console mech games that definitely take inspiration from Armored Core, especially 1999’s Master of Arena.

Sometime in the future, massive air pollution and economic disaster has caused Japan to relocate its capital city. The remains of Tokyo are now the battlegrounds for people, mostly teenagers, to remote control mechs, known as Scoot Vehicles (shortened to Scoobees or SVs) load them with weaponry and take part in free for all fights – this being the key area where Phantom Crash differs from Master of Arena, which was a strictly one on one affair.

The game follows a sort of Gran Turismo inspired structure – you have a city map that contains various stores and facilities where you can buy new mechs, weaponry, upgrades and music and then once you’re feeling confident you can go “rumbling” – the term used in the game for participating in the arenas. These arenas follow a sort of schedule where each day, a different rank of competition is on the field in each of the three different maps. Days pass once you go rumbling and come back, or can be skipped by returning to your garage and sleeping if there’s nothing you want or can do that day.

When inside one of these arenas, your aim is to shoot down as many other mechs as possible. Generally speaking there’s about six on the field at any given time and more enter to replace those removed from combat – by you or others. Strictly speaking you can stay in the field as long as you can last – the only way the match ends is if you’re shot down (incurring huge repair costs) or if you use one of the exits to leave. Critically injured combatants may even try use an exit themselves. There are named NPCs and also some cannon fodder in the form of barely armed drones – but periodically the current champion of the match’s rank will enter the fray, complete with a cutscene and they tend to be much, much stronger than the rest, brandishing a lot of firepower and a lot of armour. The main aim of the game then, is to amass money in the arena, kit out your SV and take down all the rankers.

Getting surrounded is often a quick way to suddenly find yourself with a massive repair bill.

Combat is decently fast and there’s never too much downtime. While most SVs don’t turn too fast, you can perform quick side boosts to help avoid shots or make tricky jumps. Each SV is also equipped with optical camouflage, which ends up playing a big part in how fighting works out. When camouflaged, you can’t be locked onto and any current lockons get dropped. Taking damage ‘reveals’ you, but it’ll have to be done via other means – whether that’s potshots from rifles or machine guns, splash explosions or lucky melee hits. When other SVs are hidden, you can sort of catch a weird outline where they are, and your targeting reticule will turn orange and then red when you’re aiming near a hidden mech to give you a hand with it. Camouflage does have a time limit, but even with the worst parts on your SV, it’s quite lengthy and recharges really fast so it’s almost always worth using when it’s available.

In any case, you can’t win a fight without a good SV – though that’s not strictly true as there is a rental system if you’re really hard up for funds. Kitting out your mech is again, somewhere inbetween Gran Turismo and Armored Core. There’s three manufacturers, each with a few models having different statistics and benefits. You can only use weapons and parts from the same manufacturer on a SV frame, but there’s decent variety in each one and you can own  a large number of mechs and parts at any given time, giving you a pretty good degree of flexibility.

It’s important to look your best on the battlefield.

Weapons can be placed on the arms and back of the mech, giving you up to four each and range from rockets and missiles to single shot rifles and swords. There’s different types of legs to consider, mainly affecting speed and jump ability, as well as armour plating.  The shop’s contents change day to day, so while sometimes you can snag some nice deals, it can also be frustrating to see a really nice part that’s just out of your financial reach disappear once you get enough funds for it. Each SV frame also has a different amount of weight it can carry and you need to factor this into your design.
Speaking of design, while you can’t quite do it completely yourself, there’s a pretty wide array of paint schemes to purchase, as well as decals so you can really stand out amongst the very brown and dusty remains of Tokyo.

It’s also very important to know when to retreat.

One other major component of a SV is the AI Chip. AI Chips help with things like targeting, lockon time and if you want them to, the automatic use of optical camouflage. They’re represented by photos of animals and each one has different strengths that can be augmented as you keep using them, with the idea being that they grow alongside you and your SV. This also plays into the story, where they’re often chiming into discussions characters are having with you. Said characters in these scenes are almost charmingly ugly, bringing to mind early 3D rendered TV shows like Reboot. The story is ultimately not very important, but it’s nice that there’s a decent amount of characters who pop in from time to time, though the translation is on the rough side.

One character who doesn’t really factor into the story but is mentioned, is MonaLisa – a holographic idol producing chart topping hits that calls to mind Sharon Apple from Macross Plus, if only because Hatsune Miku wouldn’t be around for another five years from Phantom Crash’s release. MonaLisa has a couple of songs in the game, with the main hit being “Awake to Love” which has both English and Japanese versions available and functions as a sort of theme song for the game . There’s actually quite a lot of music in the game, licensed from artists mostly in Japan. This includes a quartet of recorder players, a three band supergroup from the Kansai area and a variety of instrumental and electronic songs. These songs can be bought in the store and placed into playlists, giving you complete control of your favorite songs.  Oddly enough there’s no support for the Xbox’s custom soundtrack feature, but Phantom Crash’s uniquely varied soundtrack makes up for it.

When it comes down to it, Phantom Crash is an odd little game. There’s really not a lot to it, mostly due to there only being three maps which aren’t particularly different from each other, but what’s there has enough charm to make it work. It reviewed well enough and found itself a cult following, perhaps in part due to there not being many Japanese developed games on the Xbox at that stage, but when it came time for a sequel, developer Genki ended up working with another publisher on another system.

Year: 2005
Genre: Action
Developer: Genki Co. Ltd
Publisher: Konami
Platform: PlayStation 2

In most respects, Steel Lancer Arena InternationalSLAI for short, is not a radical departure from Phantom Crash. The setting, at least has changed – it’s been a few years and rumbling has taken the world by storm. Many countries have arenas and most participants now pilot their SVs through the internet, with services to physically move a SV to another continent in order to participate in other arenas. With this change, the map menu is more or less gone – replaced with a 3D representation of the internet. The campaign starts with you registering for the service, creating an avatar, though it’s just the equivalent of a JPEG next to your name on a forum, and then some mildly cute remarks about poor framerates, server congestion and crashes from your little daemon helper.

This 3D representation can be walked around – somewhat, it’s only made of paths and there’s no exploring to be done, or your destination can be picked from a menu. It’s slow, ugly and ruins the pace of everything when you have to trudge between shops to get simple tasks done. This issue extends to how arena selection works. When you register, you choose a server – each of these servers corresponds to one of the arenas, and to enter another arena you have to pay a small fee to move your SV and registration data to that server, which takes a day. This means you have to pay a bit more attention to the schedule and plan any moves in advance and while working it into the game’s atmosphere is admirable, in the end it’s just annoying.

Initially the new map is interesting but it very quickly becomes slow and clunky to get anything done in.

These new arenas though are a nice breath of fresh air. While they are marginally smaller, the fact that there’s now seven of them instead of just three makes up for it. They’re mostly a lot less drab than those that were in Phantom Crash, though still not especially colourful – Stuttgart, Cairo and London are fairly dull but New York and Las Vegas in particular are pleasing.

With the new arenas come new parts, paint jobs and two new manufacturers, bringing the customization game up considerably. Optical Camouflage has been changed to not be quite as effective, with the AI guessing where you are more often and the effect in general not lasting very long, especially with earlier quality parts. Melee weapons feel like they’re more lethal – a good sword can carry you quite far, though the same applies to the enemy rankers, if they get a bead on you it only takes a few moments for your SV to go down.

Melee weapons are just as deadly as ever – especially in the hands of rankers.

When it comes to the music, having Konami as a publisher changed the licensing choices a bit – though whether it was at their behest or something Genki wanted to do anyway is unknown. While the varied soundscape that Phantom Crash provided is still present, including more from MonaLisa, it also includes a sizeable western representation, including Zebrahead – who must have been somewhat popular in Japan around this time given that they also did one of the theme songs for Sonic the Hedgehog 2006, and Superchick. A particular shout out has to go to the very vocal fusion jazz songs, which really shouldn’t work for this sort of game but actually kind of do.

Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the new character models, which are extremely ugly, especially armed with the knowledge that these are meant to be avatars that users of the system saved up and purchased. This has a sort of knock-on effect on the game’s story – it’s hard to pay attention with the distracting ugliness taking up most of the screen.

There are two new gameplay modes – one of which is an arcade survival type setup where you use a prebuilt loadout (or one from the campaign on your memory card) and make your way through a series of set challenge fights. If you lose once, you’re out and there’s a time limit in each arena to worry about. These matches are a bit tough, mostly due to the rankers and if you use one of the pre-configured SVs you’re going to have your work cut out for you.

The other mode is an extension of the split screen multiplayer that was in both games – the ability to go online and take part in four player free for alls. However, the official servers have long since been shutdown and while some online PlayStation 2 games do have private server options, SLAI is not among them at this time.

While there hasn’t been any sort of follow up to the two games, Genki did actually make another mech-oriented game, although it came before Phantom Crash. Brahma Force was released for the PlayStation 1 in 1996 though it has almost nothing to do with the later two games, instead being a level based first person shooter style game with a sizeable focus on platforming, but it bears a quick mention at least.

As it stands there has been no word on a third game, nor any re-releases for more modern systems – though Genki did continue to work with Konami for a fair few years afterwards, such as putting them in charge of porting Peace Walker for the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

Phantom Crash is somewhat compatible with the the Xbox 360’s backwards compatibility, however it has crashing issues in the middle of combat, preventing it from actually being actually playable and it is not compatible with the Xbox One at all and Xbox emulation on PC has long since been in a state of relative infancy making official hardware the only way to play the game.

In the case of SLAI, it works perfectly fine in PCSX2 as well as on the PlayStation 3’s PlayStation 2 emulator if you happen to have a modified PlayStation 3 to use for that purpose. Neither game is especially hard to find used copies of, with an exception for PAL copies of SLAI which tend to be a bit more on the rare side.

In the end, SLAI is the type of sequel where there’s a lot of moves forward – more arenas and parts, online play, etc. but also a fair few backwards – the character models, loss of atmosphere and extended clunkiness with the menus where it becomes hard to pick between it and the original and it becomes up to the individual to decide. For me personally, the atmosphere that Phantom Crash has makes it the winner of the two.

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